A famous black-and-white image from the early days of film shows actress Pearl White looking coyly to her side while three men – one standing beside a movie camera, the others closer to the ground behind the actress – are setting up a scene on a precarious cliff above a distant body of water. The now-iconic still is from White’s 1918 film serial The House of Hate, a nail-biting murder mystery that ended in suspenseful cliffhangers each week.

In fact, this is where the term ‘cliffhanger’ (as it refers to film) is believed to have been coined. Still, the setting is far from Hollywood. It’s northern New Jersey – just across the Hudson River from New York City – which for a brief but glorious time in the early 20th Century was the silent film capital of the world.

Walk around Fort Lee today and you’ll see that it’s brimming with modern development. With more than one-third of the borough’s population of Asian origin – and more than a third of that Korean – Fort Lee’s centre bustles with 24-hour eateries serving up everything from pork-bone hotpots to spicy soft tofu soup.

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Towering high rises face out across the Hudson toward upper Manhattan, and traffic pours into downtown from both levels of the double-decker George Washington Bridge. Though while film buffs might easily recognise the borough’s landmark bridge from films such as Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose, Fort Lee’s role as the birthplace of the motion picture industry seemed to have been lost in the vaults for decades, and is only recently being rediscovered.

“Fort Lee’s movie history was one of those things that was always in the background growing up,” said Eric Nelsen, a historical interpreter for Palisades Interstate Park – the backdrop for White’s House of Hate photo – who grew up in New Jersey’s Bergen County (of which Fort Lee is a part). “But once you start digging into it, all the information is actually overwhelming.”

According to Tom Meyers, founder and executive director of the Fort Lee Film Commission, a non-profit dedicated to preserving and promoting the borough’s unique film history, Fort Lee housed more than a dozen working film studios during World War One – such as the Victor Film Company, Fox Film Corporation and Goldwyn Picture Corporation (the last standing of which, Champion/Universal, was bulldozed in 2013). And if you grew up in town any time since, chances are you had relatives who worked in the industry. “My grandmother got her start as a film extra and then later moved on to cutting film,” Meyers said, “and my mother and uncles worked for the studio that would later merge with Universal.”

From approximately 1909 to 1918, Fort Lee was the centre of the cinematic universe (Hollywood’s first film studio opened in 1911, but it took until the early ‘20s for the West Coast film industry to become well known). Inventor Thomas Edison had already built his Black Maria, ‘America’s first movie studio’, in nearby West Orange, New Jersey, where he kept his home and laboratory, and with the help of his assistant, William Dickson, invented the kinetoscope, precursor to the film projector.

There was local momentum for sure, but Fort Lee was also camera-ready. The greater borough’s natural and manmade landscapes made it the perfect place for picture-making. There were the Palisades’ sheer cliffs – an easy stand-in for canyon country – and below them the Hudson River, which could be made to look like a seaside harbour, coastal stretch or in some cases even an ocean. The top of the Palisades’ were a mix of wide-open plateau and tall trees that at the right angle resembled the woods of England, as was the case in the obscure 1912 adventure short, Robin Hood. Then there was the town itself, with its wood-frame houses, narrow streets and a small stretch of stone and granite businesses that served as ‘Anytown, USA’. Directors even rented horses from a nearby stable for films’ many Wild West scenes. With such a wealth of scenic variety in such proximity to a major hub like New York City, Fort Lee appeared to have had it made.

A lot of what the industry takes for granted today was all figured out in Fort Lee

“It’s strange to think that movie making is so ubiquitous today, yet it all began here in Fort Lee barely a century ago,” Nelson said. “A lot of what the industry takes for granted today – things like using multiple cameras for different angled shots, and ways to diffuse light – it was all figured out in Fort Lee.”

With the films came the actors, many of whom went on to become big Hollywood stars: names like Fatty Arbuckle, Mary Pickford and Theda Bara all got their start in Fort Lee. Others, such as the first-ever host of the Academy Awards, Douglas Fairbanks, moved to the borough for its cinema opportunities as well. The Marx Brothers began their film career here with their first-ever comedy short, the now-lost Humor Risk – and patriarch of the Barrymore acting dynasty, Maurice Barrymore, was not only a Fort Lee resident but also helped build a local volunteer fire station. To raise money, he staged a play called Man of the World at the former Buckheister’s Beer Garden on Main Street, where a car park now stands. His 18-year-old son John – Drew Barrymore’s grandfather and one of the most celebrated actors of his era – played the starring role. It was his acting debut.

But Fort Lee’s film heyday was short lived. When frigid temperatures bring the US’ Mid-Atlantic region to a standstill and winter transforms the Hudson River into a sea of slush and ice, it’s easy to see why the movie industry soon left northern New Jersey for Hollywood’s perpetually sunny skies. A coal shortage that left studios unheated during a brutally cold New Jersey winter, coupled with the influenza pandemic of 1918, caused many of Fort Lee’s movie studios to close indefinitely. Rather than reopen, they simply up and moved to year-round warm and temperate California. Many of the borough’s studios were left abandoned and eventually burned down or were torn down over the years for redevelopment, and Fort Lee’s film history became a thing of the past.

In fact, when local resident Sean Ng first moved to Fort Lee from Manhattan about five years ago, he knew nothing about its days as a cinema star. But soon he started noticing large plaques detailing the borough’s legendary past erected in several spots throughout town, especially closer to its commercial centre. “[Now that I’ve discovered the local film history], it feels rather special,” he said. “When you speak of movies, Hollywood usually comes to mind, not Fort Lee, New Jersey.” He asked some his neighbours for more information, but few of them knew much the borough’s film era.

It’s strange to think the place that pioneered the world’s movie industry remains so low-key about its background, but there’s been active motion to change this. Along with nearly a dozen plaques commemorating Fort Lee’s film history, there are also several decorative street signs honouring local stars of the silent screen, including John Barrymore Way (on the corner of Main Street and Central Road, where the original Buckheister’s once stood) and Theda Bara Way (on the corner of Main Street and Linwood Avenue, named for the femme fatale actress who became one of film’s original sex symbols). Just this autumn, ground broke on the Barrymore Film Center, a film museum and 260-seat cinema scheduled to open in February 2020, with its entrance right across the street from Fort Lee’s historical First National Bank building, used in the DW Griffith 1911 drama Her Awakening.

When you speak of movies, Hollywood usually comes to mind, not Fort Lee, New Jersey

The bank is one of the few structures that remains from the borough’s silent-film days, where apartment buildings, car parks, convenience stores and rampant reconstruction have since usurped colonial-style mansions and movie studios. But you can still take a stroll through downtown’s Monument Park, where actor-turned-director Griffith shot early films such as 1909’s The Cord of Life and Harley Knowles directed 1917’s The Volunteer. Or snap some pics outside Rambo’s, a former two-storey saloon along First Street in the borough’s residential Coytesville neighbourhood that is now government-assisted housing for veterans. In the early days of film, Rambo’s stood in for everything from a New England tavern to a Western saloon – and later earned the nickname the ‘Silicon Valley of Film’ from Meyers and his colleagues for being an incubator of early film ideas. “Crew from every film studio came here because it was the only game in town for lunch,” Meyers said. “They sat in Rambo’s outdoor picnic area and came up with innovative new ways to do things, like diffusing light by holding a tablecloth up to the sun.”

Of course, there’s also Cliffhanger Point, that natural overhang that Pearl White and her own crew made famous. “For years I never knew where that sight was,” Nelson said, “but when we finally found it, it was so obvious. You could actually line up the cracks in the rock.”

When it comes down to it, Fort Lee’s days of movie stardom may have been a flash in the pan, but the town’s role in the history of film is unmistakable. “This is the place that pioneered film studios,” Meyers said. “The studios and many of their films may be gone, but their ghosts undoubtedly remain.”

They’re simply lurking behind high-rises and 24-hour Korean eateries.

Video by Aman Cheung, Elizabeth Pustinger and Mikel Panlilio

Places That Changed the World is a BBC Travel series looking into how a destination has made a significant impact on the entire planet.

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